The Big 5 : Photographing the Lion

lion portrait in the rain
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Of the Big 5 the lion is possibly the most sought after to photograph. Perhaps this is because of it’s legendary status in film, folk lore and song. Even more so than the leopard, every Safari goer wants to photograph the lion. Here are my top tips for photographing the lion.

7 Tips for photographing Lion

  1. Know where to find them
  2. Position your vehicle correctly
  3. Observe their behaviour
  4. Choose the correct lens
  5. Choose the correct camera settings
  6. Photographing predation
  7. Keep an eye out for scavengers
male lion walking

70-200mm @200mm,1/200 sec, f/2,8, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 500, White balance: Auto

Know where to find them

Do your research before departing on your trip. An obvious way to start is to find out if your Safari destination is advertising itself as a Big Five reserve. Once you have done that you can then investigate how many prides of lion the reserve has, whether there is a dominant pride or prides, and which part of the reserve is their territory.

You may find for example that a certain reserve has one pride of lions and they are resident in the northern part of the park or reserve you are visiting. This should influence your choice of accommodation within that park or reserve in order to ensure you see them.

Many of the private game reserves and private concessions are traversable in one day however you don’t want to spend your entire three hour game drive on a quest to photograph a lion. 

If you are doing a self drive Safari in a national reserve and you want to photograph lion you can visit online forums for that reserve for recent lion sightings. Lions and their movements are often documented on these forums as are changes in hierarchy, presence of male coalitions, news of new cubs and so on.

lioness and cub

420mm, 1/640 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Center-weighted average, ISO: 200, White balance: Cloudy

Position your vehicle correctly

If you are self driving, positioning yourself at a lion sighting will have its own challenges. In national parks such as the Kruger and Kgalagadi, lions often helpfully position themselves by the side of the road. Sometimes even on the road itself if they are seeking the additional warmth that hot tar gives on a chilly morning.

Such sightings are always crowded, unless you are in a remote location, and the behaviour around lion sightings in the Kruger in particular is nothing short of atrocious. As you will want to move out of the traffic jam quite quickly, I recommend that you put a short lens on your camera, grab some shots when you manage to get a clear view and then move rapidly on your way.

If you are on a guided Safari in a game viewing vehicle, your driver will know how to get the best position for you. Some principles of positioning yourself when photographing lion:

  1. As the apex predator, lions in reserves are habituated to having game viewing vehicles drive up to, and around them so you should be able to get into position without causing them anxiety.
  2. Have the sun behind you. This is not always possible of course but do not be afraid to take back lit photographs of lion. Their golden coat and iconic shape give you numerous opportunities to be creative and so shooting into the sun need not be a total disaster. See back-lit image below. 
lion cubs playing

Observe their behaviour

The primary thing to understand about photographing lion is that they spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping. Knowing how, when and where they get active is incredibly important. Here are some tips:

  1. If a pride has taken up station around a kill (particularly a large one like a giraffe or a buffalo) then they will stay there for three or four days at a time
  2. Lions are most active at dawn and dusk. They often hunt at night and lay up in the shade during the day
  3. When playing, lion exhibit similar behaviours as a domestic cat. Look for siblings pouncing on each other and irritable mothers snarling at their cubs
  4. If you see  lions moving during the day it is likely they are en route to water from a kill location or returning to a carcass having drunk. It is important to know where the water sources are so you can get into position before they arrive 
  5. Lions spend a lot of time lying around not doing much. One shot to look for when photographing lion is to capture a head-shot at the very end of a yawn. This end stage of the yawn looks exactly like a fierce snarl so wait for that and then hit the shutter. A lion takes at east five seconds to complete a yawn so you have a fair chance of capturing it. The picture below is of a male lion yawning.
lion yawning at night

300mm, 1/250 sec, f/6,3, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 6400, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Choose the correct lens

Photographing the lion with the correct lens for the situation is vital. As a general rule, I would advise a zoom lens such as a 100 – 400mm or 200 – 600mm lens for the job. This does of course depend on your proximity to the lion as well as the type of image you are looking to capture. Some points to note:

  1. In certain parks and reserves where off road traversing is allowed, you are likely to get very close to the lions. This can be both a positive and a negative. Good news if you are using a cell phone camera, not such good news if you are packing a 600mm prime lens.
  2. If you are expecting to be in the above situation I recommend that you have a 70-200mm lens on your camera. This will ensure that you have sufficient reach for close up shots as well as a wide enough point of view if you are driven up very close. The shorter focal length also allows you to get more of the lions’s environment into the shot.

Read also my article Best Wildlife Photography Lenses

young male lion

Choose the correct camera settings

Photographing lions with the correct camera settings is key to getting as many ‘keepers’ as possible. The lion is static for large long periods of time however it can move incredibly fast when playing or hunting. My camera setting recommendations are as follows:

  1. Choose the correct aperture. Using too wide an aperture may mean that you only get a small amount of the lion in focus, particularly if you are close up. This is because the animal is large and you will need a narrower aperture to get the entire lion in focus. Use f8 if you are within 50 metres of the animal and f5.6 to f 6.3 if you are further away
  2. Choose the correct shutter speed. If you are using aperture priority the camera will choose the shutter speed according to the aperture and ISO setting. You can get away with a low shutter speed when photographing the lions when they are lying around. I would not recommend shutter speeds of below 1/400 sec if it is immobile and a minimum of 1/1250 sec if it is walking
  3. Modern cameras, particularly the full frame mirrorless cameras, are able to handle very high ISO settings. Ensure that you have your shutter speed sufficiently fast to capture a sharp image even if this means shooting at a high ISO. Rather fix a noisy image in post than have a soft image.
lion cub playing

Photographing predation

Lions are very efficient killers. They are also opportunistic and will kill an animal without necessarily having any immediate plans to eat it. Many people would rather stay away from lion kills and if you are one of those I suggest you move on to the next section of this guide.

In the hours immediately following a kill the scene is at its most frenetic. Lion hierarchy dictates that the strongest eat first and you will see a lot of fighting and squabbling on a kill that you can photograph.

Tips for lion kill photography:

  1. Watch for lions using their incisors to tear off pieces from the carcass and capture their expressions
  2. Blood soaked heads make for dramatic images and bring home the savage nature of life in the wild
  3. Zoom out to capture the entire scene
lions on buffalo kill

24-70mm @ 70mm, 1/250 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 640, White balance: Auto

Watch for Scavengers

Keep a look out for scavengers lurking around lion kills. The obvious example is vultures but learn to look for the following also:

  1. Jackals will remain at a discreet distance usually until lions lose interest in a carcass. This means that they can be found and photographed in close proximity to the kill for several days.
  2. Hyena have been known to challenge lions on a kill provided they outnumber them at least three to one. Lions will kill a hyena on sight.
  3. Most raptors are not too proud to scavenge and you may find Bataleurs and Tawny Eagles joining vultures in the trees surrounding a kill.
  4. Vultures and eagles circling overhead or swooping down to surrounding trees give a great opportunity to practice photographing birds in flight.
lion cub on buffalo kill

For more of my Big Five series:

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